Paints & stains

Our top picks are at your nearest home center

Last reviewed: June 2010
Program leader Rico De Paz mounts stained boards to our outdoor test rack
Mildew check
Program leader Rico De Paz mounts stained boards to our outdoor test rack.
Photograph by Robert Mescavage

Which finish lasts the longest? Top honors go to California, a relatively small brand that isn't sold in California. But our latest tests found four other paints and two stains that did almost as well and are as close as your local Home Depot, Lowe's, or Sears.

At $19 per gallon, Home Depot's Behr Premium Plus Flat almost matched the $35 California Fresh Coat Velvet Flat at fending off cracking, dirt, and mildew.

Behr also won out among stains: Its $26 Deck Plus Solid Color Deck, Fence & Siding topped our charts for the second straight year. But at just $21 per gallon, Sears' Weatherbeater Solid Deck, Fence & Siding is a bargain if your home doesn't face intense weathering. And like most new stains, they work for siding and decks.

Manufacturers are reformulating products to meet lower limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are linked to ozone, smog, respiratory illnesses, and memory impairment. Some of last year's top finishes have since been reformulated, so we're retesting them. All of this year's fully tested finishes meet expected federal limits of 100 to 250 grams per liter for paints and 250 grams per liter for stains. Several paints from Glidden and Sherwin-Williams also meet the more stringent, southern California VOC limit of 50 grams per liter and look promising. Among stains, the Sears Weatherbeater meets the 100-gram limit for parts of California.

Our accelerated tests under sun, rain, and snow—which simulate up to nine years of exposure—show that some brands are making painting and staining easier as well as cleaner. Here are the details:

Self-priming paints pass muster

Valspar's Duramax Flat and Satin, $33 and $35 per gallon, respectively, are among a growing number of exterior paints that eliminate the need to prime bare surfaces. They are fine choices for shadier properties. Skipping the usual prime coat can also save you a significant part of a professional painter's labor cost.

More stains ease cleanup

Last year, our Ratings included several oil-based stains that required mineral spirits to clean brushes and other tools. This year, all except the $40 Sikkens Cetol SRD Semi-Transparent are lower-VOC, water-based stains that clean up with soap and water.

A clearer stain wins

Even the best semitransparent stain won't last as long as the best opaque finish. But the Sikkens Cetol SRD Semi-Transparent looks better than others from Olympic, Sherwin-Williams, and Wolman after the equivalent of three years and is a new top pick.

Can this paint job be saved?

Painting an average-sized house can cost $6,000 or more. Some simple fixes can buy you time if most of the paint is sound:

Problem

Dirt or mildew

Solution

Clean with a pressure washer (about $100 to $300). Use a wide spray at least 12 inches away. Cover nearby shrubs.


Problem

Fading

Solution

Consider putting a single new coat only on the side that gets the most sun.


Problem

Hairline cracks

Solution

If most of the paint is intact, touch up small cracks to seal them until you're ready to repaint the entire house.